Why Study History?

In part the answer should lie in the heart of the person considering advanced studies in history.

  • Do I like history and storytelling?
  • Do I enjoy piecing together the 'backstory' to today's global events? 
  • Do I like the detective work of following the twists and turns in people’s lives, of reconstructing the context of major events?
  • Do I enjoy making the often-surprising connections that are revealed through piecing together a documentary record?

One of the strongest reasons to study history is that you enjoy the challenge and find it fulfilling. Of course enjoyment is not the sole reason why you should choose to study history. There certainly are more practical reasons for why you should analyze the past.

First, as the noted world historian Peter Stearns has commented, historical study “is crucial to the promotion of that elusive creature, the well-informed citizen.” Let us briefly explore some components of that connection. The past is the only ‘laboratory’ we have with data on the workings of human societies. Looking at the past gives us a chance to study human societies with a degree of distance and separation and thus see how those societies functioned and why change over time occurred. While there is inherent value in understanding those functions and reasons for change, there is also a current or present value in that knowledge. This knowledge of past change and the functions of human societies allow us to begin answering questions like “Why is this happening now?” and “what might this signify for the future?” The only way to answer these questions is to understand the fundamental forces that cause change and the factors that have led to the particular crisis. In effect, we have to analyze history in order to understand and operate effectively in the present.

Second, the practice of historical inquiry helps students develop very practical, usable skills. The job of the historian is to figure out the major forces that make human societies function and why, given those forces, change over time occurs. To do this job, historians have to sort through multiple kinds of evidence, assess differing interpretations of events, make reasoned judgments about those sources and interpretations, assess the meaning or significance of these findings, and then effectively communicate that meaning to others in written and oral form. Historians are in the business of analyzing and communicating information.

What this means is that historians come trained with a set of skills that are crucial and applicable to a range of careers central to today’s economy. Certainly, students with this training do teach history, work in museums and archives, and do historical research for businesses and non-profits. However, historians are tailor-made for any job that requires one to weigh information and interpretations from multiple sources and then effectively assess and convey meaning to others. Thus, historians come equipped with the fundamental skills required of doctors, lawyers, middle and upper level managers, researchers of any kind, small business owners, politicians, public servants and community organizers.

In effect, the beauty of historical training is that it is not job specific. Almost assuredly, graduates will alter career paths at least once in their working life. The skills of the historian are transferable and flexible—ideal for meeting the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing global economy.

For further information on career paths for historians, please see:

American Historical Society's Careers Resources

Organization of American Historians Career COACH®

ArtSci News
October 20, 2016
The Comparison Project will present the third event in its 2016–2017 series on death and dying. A community interfaith dialogue on Oct. 27 will feature representatives of three different refugee religions in Des Moines.